Town on front line of fight to defend Kurdish capital from jihadis hunkers down

Formerly bustling Kalak darkened and many residents flee prospect of fighting as Islamic State closes in on Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 6:44am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 6:44am


The main front line between militants from the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters defending their capital, Arbil, was pitch-black. Local residents had either fled or had turned off their lights and were staying indoors while the militants shelled the Kurdish lines and US and Iraqi aircraft responded with air strikes.

Once a bustling strip of homes, markets and tea shops accustomed to the heavy flow of commerce along the highway between Mosul and Arbil, Kalak has undergone two transformations.

The first came in early June when tens of thousands of refugees who fled the Islamic State's seizure of Mosul settled there in a vast tent city designed by the United Nations. The second came on Thursday, when the refugees vanished after a surprise offensive by the Islamic State into Kurdish-held areas.

Now the town of Kalak, 40km northwest of Arbil, has become the defensive line for Kurdish peshmerga militias and the flashpoint for the US aerial campaign that three times on Friday saw American aircraft strike Islamic State positions a couple of kilometres away.

Still, there are traditions to be kept, so not far from the front, small groups of Kurdish fighters were drinking tea at a handful of open roadside stands.

Many were dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing - baggy jumpsuits, wide belts and colourful turbans - and they carried an assortment of Russian-made assault rifles of 1970s vintage. One man, a professionally dressed volunteer from Arbil, carried a newer-looking US-made M-16.

The men excitedly described Friday's events, which the Pentagon says began with a 1.45pm attack by two F/A-18s on an Islamic State artillery piece, followed by a drone strike about 5pm on an Islamic State mortar position about 5km away.

They described a series of strikes in the direction of Christian villages that fell to the Islamic State on Thursday, just a few kilometres away.

Local residents described a day of heavy shelling in both directions, leading one less-than-devout Kurdish Muslim to joke that he had spent the day "reading the Koran and praying to the cross, just in case", as US bombs and Islamic State shells landed near his family home.

Serving at a checkpoint rear guard for the frontline troops, these volunteers encouraged visitors to proceed up the highway to the very front, where a half-dozen pickup trucks mounted with heavy Russian-made 12.7mm "Dushka" machine-guns blocked the highway.

About 100 uniformed professional peshmerga fighters stood around, making sure no one went down the road towards Mosul and the Islamic State lines about 1.5km away.

Their silhouettes could be seen against the moonlight, but there was little man-made illumination as the troops followed standard military discipline for night-time fighting: don't give your enemy anything to aim at in the dark.

But morale was clearly high, far better than on Thursday, when every question posed was answered with a query about if and when the Americans would help against an enemy better equipped with heavy weapons it had recently looted from captured Iraqi arsenals.

Now that US aircraft were making bombing runs, the nervous friendly chatter had been replaced by serious determination.

But Arbil itself remained on edge. Men from the Kurdish government's feared internal security branch, the Asayesh, more heavily armed than usual, could be seen checking cars. One Kurdish security official admitted that the Asayesh intelligence officers had been tracking a number of suspected Islamic State "sleeper agents" who had infiltrated Arbil.


President Obama confirms that United States air strikes destroyed Islamic State arms and equipment

US President Barack Obama said yesterday that US air strikes had destroyed arms and equipment that Islamic State insurgents could have used to attack Arbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital, but warned Americans it could take some time to end the crisis.

"I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks. This is going to take some time," Obama said.

The US would continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Baghdad government and Kurdish forces, but he stressed repeatedly the importance of Iraq forming its own inclusive government "right now".

"I think this is a wake-up call for a lot of Iraqis inside of Baghdad recognising that we're going to have to rethink how we do business if we're going to hold our country together," he said.

Obama on Thursday authorised the US military to make air drops of humanitarian assistance to prevent what he called a potential "genocide" of the Yazidi religious sect and conduct targeted strikes on Islamic State fighters who have been seizing territory in northern Iraq. The limited operation was also aimed at protecting Americans working in the country.

Obama said there had been two successful air drops of food and water. He described the next steps, including what would be a more complicated effort to create a safe corridor for the Yazidis to leave the arid mountain where they have been under siege by the Sunni Islamist fighters.

"American aircraft are positioned to strike [Islamic State] terrorists around the mountain to help forces in Iraq break the siege and rescue those who are trapped there," he said.

Obama emphasised that there were no plans to send in US ground troops, again stressing the need for a unified government in Baghdad. "The most important timetable that I'm focused on right now is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalised," he said.

"We should have learned a lesson from our long and immensely costly incursion in Iraq," said the Democratic president, who made his opposition to the war launched by his Republican predecessor George W. Bush a key part of his first successful presidential campaign in 2008.

Obama said he spoke yesterday to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande and they had agreed to provide humanitarian assistance for Iraqi civilians.